Femen's Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes a Uniform
By: Sara M. Salem
Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012
In November 2011, Egyptian blogger Alia al-Mahdi sent shockwaves through the online Middle Eastern community after she uploaded a naked picture of herself. Al-Mahdi claimed that she was challenging Egyptian patriarchal structures in general, and the negative views of women as simple sex objects in particular.
Interestingly, Egyptian self-identified liberals and secular activists were the first to disown Alia and her photo, denouncing it even before more conservative factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood did. They claimed that it was pointless, and did immense harm to the liberal/secular cause in Egypt, especially with parliamentary elections coming up. Much of the debate also centered on the issue of feminism and women’s rights. Many claimed that stripping naked was not a feminist tactic by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact simply reified the image of women as a sex object to be consumed for the pleasure of men. Others disagreed, pointing out that the photo had stirred up a debate about women in Egyptian society, in particular with regards to sexuality and nudity.
After receiving death threats, al-Mahdi and her partner Kareem Amer had to leave Egypt.
On 20 December 2012, new photos began circulating of al-Mahdi, this time posing naked with members of Femen, a Ukrainian-based feminist movement, under the title “Apocalypse of Muhammad.” In one of these photos, al-Mahdi is standing with an Egyptian flag, with the words “Sharia is not a constitution” written on her body in black paint next to two nude Femen activists. In another photo, al-Mahdi is holding a paper over her crotch with “Coran” written on it. The reaction was instantaneous, as the photos were shared widely on Twitter and Facebook.
In collaborating with Femen, al-Mahdi is essentially normalizing certain problematic discourses about Egyptian women. While the action of uploading a photo of herself naked can be seen as one avenue of challenging society’s patriarchal norms, the fact that she collaborated with a group that can be defined as a colonial feminist movement should be problematized.
Femen is a Ukraine-based movement that was started in 2008 to protest the growing sex industry in the country. The movement soon branched out and began protesting other gender issues, including the perceived oppression of women at the hands of religious institutions.
According to their website:
FEMEN - is the name of the new woman
FEMEN - is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men's world. FEMEN – is the ability to feel the problems of the world, beat it with the naked truth and bare nerve. FEMEN – is a hot boobs, a cool head and clean hands. Be FEMEN - means to mobilize every cell of your body on a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!
FEMEN – is an ideology of SEXTREMISM.
FEMEN - is a new ideology of the women's sexual protest presented by extreme topless campaigns of direct action . FEMEN – is sextremism serving to protect women's rights, democracy watchdogs attacking patriarchy, in all its forms: the dictatorship, the church, the sex industry.
The magic of the body get your interested, the courage of the act make you want to riot.
Come out, Go topless and Win!
I first heard of Femen when they protested in Paris by wearing burqas and then stripping them off, to reveal their naked bodies underneath. This protest was aimed specifically at the Muslim community. Femen claimed that the veil and the burqa should be seen as intrinsically oppressive, and encouraged Muslim women to “free themselves” by stripping. This is apparent from both their protest actions as well as the slogans they use, including "Muslim Women! Let’s get Naked." Femen have also made problematic statements about Arabs,such as: “As a society we haven't been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women.” The slogan and statement point towards a specific view of Arab and Muslim women that forms part of Femen’s activism and ideology.
What struck me at the time was the underlying assumption that Femen was operating on, namely that female liberation can be directly linked to what women wear. This is not a new idea, and in fact has formed the basis of much of western feminism. One of the most prominent examples is the way the French state produced Algeria as a backwards country because Algerian women veiled. This type of logic automatically leads to the conclusion that in order to progress, women who veil must unveil, and therefore “free” themselves.
As a feminist, these colonial undertones were extremely worrying. It seemed to me that we were returning to the never-ending debate about veiling and feminism, in which many feminists continue to claim that in order to be a “real” feminist, one must reject the veil.
My concerns about Femen intensified after I watched an episode of “The Stream” on al-Jazeera English. Femen explained that women’s bodies are consistently used by men, and that their movement aimed at taking back women’s bodies and thus freeing them from patriarchy. This was to be done through the act of stripping.
Halfway through the episode, the Femen spokeswoman began to question the feminist credentials of some of the other guests, who were questioning Femen’s tactics. For Femen, it appears that their kind of feminism is the only kind of feminism. Women who choose to wear the veil cannot and will not be called feminists, since they do not adhere to the same logic that Femen adheres to.
This is not the first time that feminism has confronted the issue of diversity. First and second wave feminists in the US, for example, were notorious for excluding women who weren’t like them: white, middle-class, American. Their feminism was distinctly local, but was branded and spread as ‘universal’ and if women didn’t adopt it then they were anti-feminist. The arguments advanced by the Femen member on al-Jazeera was eerily reminiscent of those kinds of discourses, especially when she accused the other participants of not being feminists because they didn’t agree with Femen’s tactics.
By collaborating with Femen, al-Mahdi has essentially condoned their problematic stance towards feminisms that are different from their own. The reality is that many feminists in Egypt – where al-Mahdi is from – have rejected Femen and their brand of feminism. This does not mean that it is not seen as a legitimate form of feminism, but rather that it is not the only legitimate form of feminism. Moreover, the assumptions underlying some of Femen’s stances are very troubling from the perspective of post-colonial feminism, especially the assumption that women who veil are uniformly oppressed.
Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.
Yet again, the lives of Muslim women are to be judged by European feminists, who yet again have decided that Islam – and the veil – are key components of patriarchy. Where do women who disagree with this fit? Where is the space for a plurality of voices? And the most important question of all: can feminism survive unless it sheds its Eurocentric bias and starts accepting that the experiences of all women should be seen as legitimate?
Sara Salem is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her interests include decolonial theory, third world feminism, critical political economy, and theories of post-development. She tweets at @saramsalem.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
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